Saturday, March 09, 2013
On Anonymity, Professorial and Otherwise
A number of things about this latest online discussion of anonymity and its discontents strike me as somewhere between silly and disturbing. Actually, almost everything about it does, but one thing in particular is bothering me at the moment. It's the failure to actually discuss meaningfully the uses and abuses of anonymity. Without singling out anyone--and how could I, since most of the people talking about it online are doing so anonymously?--a comment on Howard's post below has set me off. The comment begins: "I would highly counsel anonymity in these posts. We are essentially mulling over legal ideas, and our speculations may or may not be correct given that we’re giving a first impression; the equivalent of going into each other’s office and talking it over rather than putting in the research, speaking to a client, and then providing a well-founded (ie. sufficient under FRCP Rule 11) advice." It is signed "anonprof." Of course, I have no idea whether the commenter is a professor at all, let alone a law professor. Assuming he or she is, however, I find it disturbing and worthy of comment, with all appropriate apologies to that individual.
The most common justification given for anonymity online, at least on the law blogs as of late, has been fear of professional repercussions for young lawyers who worry that they will be fired for speaking their mind. I can imagine cases, maybe even many cases, in which that is a valid concern. It does not, of course, say anything about how one speaks one's mind. I would have thought that a decent person who decides to speak anonymously would be more careful about what he or she says, and how he or she says it, because a decent person who refuses to put his or her good name behind a statement ought to think that circumspection is a reasonable price to pay for immunity. It's difficult to judge degrees of behavior, but obviously plenty of people who speak anonymously feel emboldened instead. Equally obviously, some people who speak anonymously behave like vulgar, uncivil asses. I assume some of them are just like that, and talk the same way even when they're using their own names. But surely some of them have decided that being anonymous frees them to be complete asses, and take full advantage of that fact. That is, I think, literally contemptible. If you can't manage to have manners, you should have a name; if you can't manage to have a name, you could at least have some manners. If you don't have either, you ought to get a life.
Leaving those people aside, surely not all of those who are civil (albeit forceful) but anonymous are justified in their anonymity by a genuine concern for disastrous consequences if they attach their name to what they write. Fear of consequences is a valid justification for anonymity, but it isn't always a valid concern. There's a difference between worrying about being fired for a careless statement, especially if one lacks resources, and worrying about slower advancement, fewer promotions, and so on. I don't think the latter concern is unworthy of anonymity, but it does suggest a certain lack of character--and all the more so if that person then uses anonymity in an especially uncivil way. This is strictly hypothetical, but if some fifth-year associate at a big law firm somewhere decided that the wise thing to do would be to remain anomymous so he or she could post "fuck off" somewhere online without worrying about losing a promotion, I wouldn't consider that an especially legitimate reason for anonymity. Could any serious person conclude otherwise?
With academics, including law professors, the reasons for anonymity, at least in one's own professional realm, are even more limited. They are, in fact, pretty close to non-existent. I could imagine a whistle-blowing scenario in which one writes about one's own colleagues for important reasons and wants to remain anonymous. I say imagine, because I can't think of any examples of anyone having actually done so. Most of the time, though, law professors who comment anonymously aren't doing anything like whistle-blowing. They're professing some view about the law. And that, of course, is their job. For tenured professors, there is no good reason to seek anonymity in order to profess about the law, legal education, or the legal academy. As far as I'm concerned, things are generally no different for untenured professors. For one thing, as I've written here before, if you can't muster up the courage to act like you deserve academic freedom before you get tenure, then it's not clear to me that you deserve it at all. For another, if you're not sure the view you're expressing is meritorious, you don't actually have to say anything at all! And if you are still moved to speak, nothing prevents you from putting your opinion in a careful and cabined way--which, as a conscientious academic, you should be doing anyway.
I hate to sound all "kids today" about it. But I started blogging some eight years ago, pre-tenure, well after many other law professors but still relatively early in the law-blogging period. Plenty of law professors back then thought about blogging and decided they didn't want to do so, either because they might suffer blowback at their own institution or in terms of lateral hiring, or because they didn't think they could spend the amount of time they'd require to feel good about having their own words attached to their own name online day after day, or both. I completely respect those decisions, and who's to say they weren't in fact much wiser? To the extent that some of us did choose to take advantage of the medium, no one was handing out any guarantees that there would be no consequences. But that's true of everything academics choose to write or not write, regardless of the medium. Absent extraordinary circumstances, I just don't think anonymity is a valid choice for law professors who want to say things about their own profession online, in comments or elsewhere. It certainly doesn't suggest even the minimal degree of courage that I think every academic, if not every lawyer--or even every person--in a First World country ought to possess.
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